"The Train of Their Departure"
by David Bezmozgis
Originally published in the August 9, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.

Click for a larger image.

I’m finally catching up! And what a delight to finally get to this story.

In the beginning we learn that Polina and Alec are married:

In the spring of 1976, before the start of their affair, before he became her husband, before she knew anything about him, Polina had noticed Alec in one or another of the V.E.F. buildings, always looking vaguely, childishly amused.

We take a quick step back to when their affair started and Marina Kirilovna, one of Polina’s co-workers who “liked to say that the only joy she’d got out of living with [her husbands] had been outliving them,” calls her a fool for considering Alec. Polina is in a stable relationship with a very stable husband, who, sure, isn’t such a catch, but still. Marina even thinks Polina might be engaging in this illicit affair in order to gain a promotion:

At the word “promotion,” Polina almost laughed. The suggestion of some ulterior motive for the affair, particularly ambition, was risible in a way that the widow could not have imagined. First, the mere idea of ambition in the factory was ludicrous. Thousands of people worked there, and — with the exception of the Party members — none of them had a salary worth envying. But, beyond that, if anything had led her to consider Alec’s overtures it was her husband’s ambition — insistent, petty, and bureaucratic.

We then take a larger step back to the days before Polina and Maxim (her first husband, the one she will be unfaithful to) were married. Their courtship takes up quite a portion of this story, and it is fascinating and somewhat excruciating to watch as Polina accepts this formal man:

Polina didn’t encourage him but he didn’t require encouragement. He courted her with the measured discipline of a person climbing a long flight of stairs. 

Their relationship is very cold (“Reason, or its pale ambassador convention, ruled Polina and Maxim’s time together”). Even when they begin having sex, there is still a vast distance between them, and an acute lack of passion:

Polina couldn’t say that she was eager to take this next and inevitable step with Maxim, but she did wonder when he would grant himself the license to do it. During their gropings and fumblings she felt like a spectator, watching Maxim as he denied himself for the sake of her honor. These preliminary bouts always ended with Maxim apologizing for the liberties he had taken.

Eventually, we know, Maxim and Polina get married. Then Alec comes along. Since Maxim is pretty much a fool, Polina allows Alec into her life.

Now, we know from the beginning that this affair is going to happen and that Polina will leave Maxim and marry Alec. There is a lot of other things going on between the lines. As KFC says in the first comment below, “Bezmozgis establishes Polina’s basic powerlessness — and the price she pays with both her husband and Alec in using the one bit of power that she does control.” This was the fascinating part for me. I felt the story was very successful.

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By |2016-06-17T22:52:10-04:00August 2nd, 2010|Categories: David Bezmozgis, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. KevinfromCanada August 3, 2010 at 6:12 pm

    I have been waiting for this story because I thought his collection was excellent. It is quite different from this story, I should note — most (perhaps all) the stories involved the Soviet Union immigrant community in Toronto and, taken collectively the volume reads almost like a novel in exploring that community.

    So this story predates the collection since it all takes place behind the Iron Curtain, although the prospect of immigration seems to be present from the start. And the title certainly underlines that.

    While I found it easier to identify with the Natasha stories (having lived in Toronto), I thought this was a very successful story. I think Bezmogis establishes Polina’s basic powerlessness — and the price she pays with both her husband and Alec in using the one bit of power that she does control. I wouldn’t describe the writing as outstanding, but did think some of the cryptic dialogue exchanges were very effective. Not a great story, but the kind of read I expect from a New Yorker short story and better than many that have appeared this year.

  2. Trevor Berrett August 17, 2010 at 3:18 pm

    I finally, just a couple of weeks late, have read this story and written my thoughts above. In short, I liked it a lot.

  3. Ken August 24, 2010 at 3:53 am

    I thought the characters were complex in comparison to characters in many short stories which makes sense since this is probably from his upcoming novel. Becuase of this, which is my pet peeve with the New Yorker of late, the story is not too satisfying since it is clearly part of a much longer narrative. I found the style uninteresting and the setting one I have read about before. Some good bits of humor and, as mentioned above, cryptic dialogue.

  4. BuriedInPrint September 24, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    My favourite of that series of stories was probably the Karen Russell story; I liked this one, but my expectations of it probably skewed my overall enjoyment of it because Natasha had been a favourite collection of mine (so I likely wanted more of the same and, of course, that’s not fair of me really).

  5. Trevor Berrett September 24, 2011 at 9:01 pm

    Did you follow up on the Karen Russell story by reading the novel, BIP? I also loved the short story and really didn’t like the novel (the strongest part of the novel, for me, was the chapter that made that short story). I’d say I really liked 5 of the 20 on the list, 5 were okay, 5 were disappointing, and 5 were awful.

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